In 1897, Pearle Wait, a carpenter in LeRoy, introduced a new brand of gelatin dessert. His wife, May, named it Jell-O. He registered Jell-O as a trademark in 1897. The first four flavors of the gelatin dessert were orange, lemon, strawberry, and raspberry. Two years later, he sold the rights to Jell-O to a prosperous LeRoy businessman, Orator Woodward, for $450. Pearle Wait would continue to build houses and dabble with patent medicines, but he would never reap fortunes from Jell-O. In the meantime, Orator Woodward, a self-made businessman and owner of the O. F. Woodward Medicine Company and the Genesee Pure Food Company, invested time and money into perfecting the gelatin product. In 1902, he launched a nationwide advertising campaign in the Ladies Home Journal. Two years later, he introduced the Jell-O Girl and sent horse-drawn wagons to rural communities to promote the new product. Woodward died in 1906, and within a year, Jell-O was grossing $1 million a year. A few years later, Orator’s eldest son, Ernest, became president of the company. He negotiated the sale of the company to Postum in 1925 by an exchange of stock that brought the Woodward family over $65 million. Jell-O and Postum became the first two subsidiaries of General Foods. In 1964, General Foods closed the factory in LeRoy, and production was moved to Dover, Delaware. Today Jell-O is owned by Kraft Foods.
The story of Jell-O and LeRoy is not complete without the story of the Woodward family. Their lifestyles and philanthropic contributions to the community left an indelible mark on LeRoy. Today there are no descendants of the Woodward family living in LeRoy, yet Pearle Wait’s granddaughter, a retired schoolteacher, has lived in LeRoy all her life.
PEARLE WAIT (1871–1915)
Pearle Wait developed Jell-O in 1897 and registered the Jell-O trademark in March. It is believed that his wife, May, coined the name. In 1899, he purchased a small building on Lake Street for a factory, but shortly after, he sold Jell-O for $450 to the Genesee Pure Food Company, owned by Orator Woodward. Wait lived long enough to see the Woodward family make millions from Jell-O.
ORATOR WOODWARD, (1856–1906)
Born in Bergen, his father died in the Civil War and the family moved to LeRoy. He first manufactured plaster of Paris skeet targets. Then he manufactured medicated nest eggs that killed lice on chickens. The O. F Woodward Medicine Company was very successful. He also manufactured Grain-O, a roasted-grain coffee substitute, and founded the Genesee Pure Food Company. In 1899, he bought the rights to Jell-O.
Soon after Orator Woodward bought the rights to Jell-O, he introduced a product that could be mixed with milk to make ice cream. Jell-O Ice Cream powder was sold for many years. In 1930, Jell-O introduced Jell-O pudding, and a few years later, Jell-O instant pudding. Today the Jell-O name is on 50 different products.
Orator Woodward built a factory on North Street for the production of Grain-O in 1897. After the acquisition of Jell-O, the factory was enlarged several times. Bordered on one side by the railroad tracks and on the north by the cemetery, it eventually became outdated and General Foods decided to build a new facility in Dover, Delaware. The LeRoy factory closed in 1964.
The Jell-O Company sent salesmen throughout the country to promote its products. The salesmen did not sell Jell-O door-to-door because it would have necessitated the purchase of a salesmen’s license, so they gave out recipe books and tacked up posters. They filled store orders and decorated store windows. The horse-drawn wagons were phased out around 1915 and replaced with trucks.
Jell-O employed about 350 people, most of them women. At first, the boxes were packed by hand, but the invention of an automatic packaging machine in 1914 enabled Jell-O to be packaged in a seamless wax paper bag. During the peak season, there were three shifts at the factory. After the factory closed, some of the employees moved to the new factory in Dover, Delaware.
Excerpt from “LeRoy” by Lynne J. Belluscio
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